BACK on October 30, Sheffield Steelers romped to a 6-1 win at Elite League rivals Coventry Blaze, completing a comfortable double for the weekend.
It came on the back of a frenetic game the previous evening in Sheffield when Paul Thompson’s team won 9-5 in the group stages of the Challenge Cup.
But the Sunday loss left Coventry out of the play-off places continuing what had been a poor start to the season under new coach Danny Stewart.
This weekend sees the Steelers and Coventry meet again in another double header and while the third-placed South Yorkshire club go into the encounters with a 5-0 record over the Blaze so far for the campaign, head coach Thompson is expecting a far sterner examination of his team’s credentials to land a third straight league title. For while Coventry’s league position has not improved noticeably – they come into the games in the eighth and final play-off spot with Dundee Stars and Edinburgh Capitals breathing down their necks – their form has taken a distinct upward turn of late.
A six-game losing streak ensured Christmas was a miserable time for Stewart’s team but they have entered 2017 flying, winning three out of their last four games, including home and away triumphs over fourth-placed Nottingham Panthers and an overtime victory at leaders Cardiff Devils.
It is reason enough for Thompson to be wary heading into tonight’s initial clash at Sheffield Arena (7pm) ahead of tomorrow night’s return bout in Coventry.
“It’s been noticeable that they seem to have turned a corner now,” said Thompson.
“But we’ve always felt they’ve had a strong group and a good team there, it just seemed that their results were a little up and down.
“But they seem to have found themselves and they’ve got two new guys in (Barry) Almeida and (TJ) Syner who have recently come in and made a big difference.
“They look to be great players for Coventry and the league as a whole, so we’re expecting a tough weekend.”
Last season it was Coventry – under former coach Chuck Weber – who had the upper-hand over the Steelers, winning seven of the 12 meetings between the two sides, including an 8-6 aggregate win which knocked the then recently-crowned league champions out in the first round of the play-offs.
But, this time around, it has been plain sailing for Thompson’s players, who themselves come into the weekend on the back of some good form, winning four of their last five games, the latest being Wednesday night’s 5-2 home win over Edinburgh Capitals.
“We’ve gained a little bit of momentum at the moment and we need to keep that going into this weekend,” added Thompson, who hopes to boast a full roster should Yared Hagos have recovered as expected from a bug which kept him out against Edinburgh.
“The games are starting to tick down now and if you have any illusions of going on to be successful, you’ve got to start that run.
“We fully expect a tough weekend against a Coventry team who beat Nottingham and Cardiff last weekend so they will be full of confidcence.
“But they’ll be coming up against a Steelers team full of confidence too.”
Confident the Steelers may be but, Thompson admitted, slightly weary too after their recent exertions saw them play three games in five days, the win over the Capitals earning the players some extra time off away from the rink.
“The guys have had today off,” said Thompson.
“I want them away from the rink for 24 hours – they are hockey’d out right now.
“I’m confident Yared will return this weekend.
“Hopefully, they can all rest up and be fighting fit for two tough games.”